Lost in Geese

On Friday, May 15, 2015, I officially retired from The University of Montana. This decision gives me more time to wander around the world in a state of amazement. Going out the front door to retrieve the mail can lead to astonishment, but when the mid-week weather looked promising I drove up to Flathead Lake to paddle my kayak, sleep in a tent, and rise at May’s early dawn to paddle again.

I spent the first afternoon exploring The Narrows. I circled islands, entered and paddled to the backs of long, deep bays left by the glacier’s retreat, and passed through the tunnel leading to Stone Quarry Bay. The evening invited even more paddling. After days of wind the lake was finally calm. Remnants of clouds created the perfect conditions for a striking sunset, and I would have enjoyed paddling with my next-door neighbors in the campground who chose to paddle slowly through the waning light. In the end I decided to sit in my camp chair, read poems by Marge Piercy, and let the changing colors on the textured water remind me of Impressionist paintings.

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During the night I heard small waves collapsing on the shore. So when I crawled out of my tent at 5:45 I was not surprised to feel a steady breeze coming from the northeast. I have learned that waves on the lake grow not only in proportion to the wind, but according to how long the wind blows and over what distance. So, I drank from my blue water bottle, skipped breakfast and stepped into my skirt. I crossed Finley Bay easily as it is protected from most of the wind by the long peninsula of Finley Point. But as soon as I rounded the knob to the north I encountered the full force of the wind and waves. When I was in the trough between waves some of the approaching crests stood at eye-level. I pressed on toward Bird Island, my goal for the morning. As I paddled parallel to the island’s west-facing shore, passed the island’s northern tip, and made a 180 degree turn, the waves required my undivided attention; I did not even consider reaching for my camera or pulling into my favorite bay on the island. I feared getting trapped and pounded between the waves and the steep gravel shore. When it came time to make the turn, I waited for an interval between waves, made a hard fast sweep, turned south in the island’s lee and began to ride the backs of the waves toward home.

Even my silent approach set off alarms among the geese on the island. In relative privacy they nest, lay eggs, and hatch their goslings on this sanctuary. As I slipped by, geese stood erect on the black blocks of argillite, their breasts extended into the morning sun. In time pairs and small flocks of geese launched and flew in circles overhead. After the adults lifted off, younger birds, seemingly torn between their island home and their desire to be with their kin, called out in distress. When the distance between themselves and their family members felt intolerable they leapt from the rocks, beat their broad brown wings and slapped flat feet against the water until they were able to join their elders in a circle around my passing. A few family groups came together into an organized flock and flew, as a friend says, as a single organism. As thrilling as it was to paddle through the morning waves, taking water down my collar, I felt elevated, even lifted out of my boat, by everything happening in the air and light. I could feel the elastic bands of belonging between and among birds, their attachment to each other and the island. It was as if I had entered a web of light and flight. My ears filled with the sound of wind, breaking waves, and calling geese, my eyes with the strokes of these powerful birds. I sat for my morning feast of amazement.

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Patience

Paddling around and through The Narrows on Flathead Lake offers the paddler a wide range of possibilities and variations. One island leads to another; intense sunlight gives way to shade, and shade to a blast of light; deep open water ends suddenly in a sparkling ramp of stones or a reef. This is simply a great place to paddle.

After driving north from town on a hot day in July, I can hardly wait to get my boat in the water. I make myself wait through the process of setting up camp, erecting the tent and an alcove for shade around the picnic table. I fill the big blue jug and placed it on the bench at a slight angle so that water will flow through the spout with a little pressure. I make myself wait for friends who are delayed in town but who plan to rendezvous with us. When everything is finally in order and friends found their way to the spot we reserved for them I slip Bluebird in the water and begin to paddle toward the unnamed island just to the northeast of Bull Island. I can easily complete this four-mile paddle before dinner.

In years past a pair of bald eagles raised their seasonal broods in a big nest on the south side of the island. I want to see if the nest is active this year. My attention is soon drawn to the conditions, however. As high pressure builds in the region, a strong wind blows out of the north. Whitecaps begin to form in the open water between the state park at Finley Point and the island. The wind and waves give me the resistance I need after containing my energies in camp: I need to paddle against something. At last I can express my own energy openly and fully.

In the distance I can see the smooth water of the island’s lee, the body of the island and tall pines blocking most of the wind. I slip into the quiet and catch my breath. Even here, though, I can hear the wind on the other side of the island and the waves crashing on the north-facing shore. I begin to paddle cautiously along the west side of the island. I feel safe enough paddling directly into the force of the wind and waves. I pull a few yards past the north shore of the island and feel daunted by the big dark waves that break against the ramp of rock leading to the body of the island. I know that turning my boat sideways to these forces could easily result in a spill. If this were to happen, my boat and I would be thrown against the rocks on shore. While holding my position straight into the wind and waves I consider a couple of options: I can back away into the relative calm water of the west shore and return the way I came, or I can wait for the best possible interval between waves, paddle hard through the opening, and begin the process of rounding the small island’s north side.

Trying to make a good decision, I wait in the rolling waves. I simply hold my position and observe the waves. I watch them roll down the fetch of the lake, see how their dark bodies rise and tip over in a white noise of air-saturated foam. In time I begin to get a feel for the rhythm of the waves. When I seem to have the pattern in mind and my energy in hand I wait for one wave to break, accelerate into the opening before the next wave, make several very hard strokes and initiate a turn just as the second wave breaks on my port quarter. I brace hard on my right to keep from being rolled like a log, then accelerate again to build a little distance between the next wave and my boat. In a few seconds I am past the north side of the island and heading for camp. Though I have completed the turn I need to keep my focus. The waves keep breaking on my stern quarter and require a quick brace in response. From time to time I try to paddle fast enough to catch a wave, riding the interval between the approaching wave and the receding one. When one wave passes under me I pause so as to not use up my energy paddling up the backs of waves. In a few minutes I am well on my way back to camp and the feast that awaits us as we gather at the picnic table of campsite #2.

I have often paddled in what I consider the safe range of waves that flow across Flathead Lake (1-2 feet). I have occasionally felt frightened, less by the general train of waves and more by the odd, idiosyncratic wave that seems bigger than the rest. This short paddle, one I have done many times, taught me something new. When I felt frightened by what I saw on the north side of the island—the full expression of the length of the lake’s power, I realized that I did not need to force my way into the tumbling waves. I did not need to maintain the pace that took me to the island. I could hold my position, wait, observe, consider options, and then decide. I could watch long enough to sense the subtle variations in the rhythm of the waves and advance into the best opening possible. I could trust my ability to accelerate, trust my body to adjust to the wave’s tendency to bring me parallel rather than perpendicular to its energies. I could wait for fear to pass and the wisdom of experience and confidence to flow back into my body. Having learned to wait, I made a safe passage around the island’s north shore and coasted back to safety and friends.

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